Pesticide maker sees profit when others see risk

Amvac buys rights to older chemicals that have raised health concerns. The company says it puts safety first.

April 08, 2007|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

From its factory on a lonely strip in Los Angeles' industrial sprawl, Amvac Chemical Corp. does a booming business selling some of the world's most dangerous pesticides.

Amvac has fueled double-digit revenue growth through an unusual business practice: It has bought from larger companies the rights to older pesticides, many of them at risk of being banned or restricted because of safety concerns.

The company has fought hard to keep those chemicals on the market as long as possible, hiring scientists and lawyers to do battle with regulatory agencies.

While profitable, Amvac's focus on older pesticides has come at a cost to human health and the environment, according to EPA and state records, regulatory investigations and a string of lawsuits.

Accidents involving the company's pesticides have led to the evacuation of neighborhoods and the poisoning of scores of field workers in California and elsewhere.

Amvac is a leading maker of organophosphates, a class of older, highly toxic pesticides that has been under regulatory scrutiny since the late 1980s.

As larger firms have stopped manufacturing some of their organophosphates, Amvac has bought the rights to make or sell 10 of them since 1989, according to company records and interviews.

One of them, mevinphos, was banned in the U.S. in 1994 after a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that it was responsible for poisoning more field workers in California than any other agricultural chemical. Amvac continues selling the product overseas, according to company officials.

Amvac is by no means the largest producer of pesticides that have attracted regulatory scrutiny, but the company stands out for its willingness to embrace chemicals that other firms have abandoned.

"There's something here rather unique, which is a company that basically goes intentionally after chemicals that are in trouble because of health and safety concerns," said Steve Schatzow, a former director of the EPA's pesticide program and now an attorney for pesticide firms. Amvac "buys them up at a discount price from the major chemical companies who no longer want to be associated" with them, he said.

Amvac, a former client, fired Schatzow in 1994 after his negotiations with the EPA ended in the ban on mevinphos.

Eric G. Wintemute, Amvac's chief executive, defended the company's record. In a series of interviews, he said Amvac's chemicals give farmers the tools to protect crops that feed people throughout the world.

Wintemute, the son of one of Amvac's founders, acknowledged that its products carry risks, but said the company had spent more than $150 million conducting tests required by regulatory agencies and training pesticide applicators to reduce that risk.

He said that in most poisoning cases involving Amvac products, regulators found that the pesticides were used improperly. Amvac's products are safe, so long as they are used according to the safety guidelines, he said.

"We focus on how to keep our products in the marketplace," Wintemute said. "If we have incidents, we lose an asset. We have to put safety first in order for the company to survive."

Industry analysts say that Amvac has shown a commitment to improving the safety of its chemicals.

"The largest crop-protection companies are less interested in trying to make a lot of money out of the organophosphates because they know they're a class of chemistry on the way out," said Philip Jarvis, publisher of the trade magazine Agrow World Crop Protection News. "If Amvac is selling these older products, at least they are older products in a safe pair of hands."

Environmental groups contend that Amvac has used stalling tactics and legal threats to blunt EPA efforts to restrict its pesticides.

They cite the case of DDVP, an ingredient in home pest strips. An EPA review of the product's safety has dragged on for 19 years, while the strips have remained on store shelves and in homes.

EPA officials disputed the contention that they were cowed by Amvac, saying the agency has clamped down on the company's products when they were a proven threat to the public. With DDVP, officials said, the risk was less clear-cut. The agency ultimately required Amvac to reduce the size of pest strips used in homes.

"There are outside groups who consistently tell us, or imply, that we do what Amvac wants," said Jim Jones, the top EPA deputy for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. "The record is so filled with documentation of us disagreeing with Amvac, it's kind of amazing that that's how people interpret it."

Pesticide scandal breaks

Glenn A. Wintemute was an entrepreneur with chemistry and biology degrees from the University of Southern California when he bought a small pesticide company in 1963 called Durham Chemical. He later joined with a partner to run American Vanguard Corp., the Newport Beach-based holding company that owns Amvac.

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